EPA announces plan to throttle back park haze rules

The Environmental Protection Agency has come to an agreement with environmental groups upset that haze-reduction efforts have been slow to materialize, giving advocates hope that a new set of deadlines will push states to finalize plans to meet three-decade-old clean air rules by the end of next year.

The timeline set forward in the agreement, announced by the EPA on Wednesday, cannot go into effect until public comments are collected and considered, but proponents say it is highly likely to be accepted.

If approved, the court-ordered timeline would compel states to come up with EPA-accepted plans to reduce haze on a staggered schedule or face federal intervention. States would have another five years to implement the plans from the time they are accepted by the EPA.

States have been slow to get such plans accepted and previous deadlines have passed without action. According to the federal Clean Air act, such plans were initially to be accepted by 2007 in an effort to restore natural visibility at national parks and forests by 2064.

A collection of environmental groups, including the Sierra Club and the National Parks Conservation Association, sued the EPA because of the missed deadlines and slow progress. That lawsuit would be settled by the agreement announced this week.

Several states – including North Dakota, Oklahoma and New Mexico – have put forward plans that have not been fully accepted by the EPA. State officials continue to fight the agency over how best to meet the haze-reduction goals, and have said they will take their cases to court if necessary.

The differences center primarily on the kind of technology that aging coal-fired power plants should install to reduce haze-forming nitrogen oxide emissions, and the cost of the technology being recommended by the EPA.

In North Dakota, state and industry officials estimate it would cost $700 million to install the emission-controlled technology recommended by the EPA, more than double the cost of using state-recommended technology.

The additional expenses would drive up utility rates, hamper the economy and have little additional impact on visibility, local officials have said.

Stephanie Kodish, a clean air attorney for the National Parks Conservation Association, said such arguments are overstated and that industry officials simply do not want to spend what is necessary to install the latest technology.

Settling those issues and meeting the new timeline, she said, should not be difficult for states still working out their differences with the EPA.

“There is nothing extraordinary about what the EPA is doing here,” Kodish said. “It’s not like this is a new regulation coming down the pipe. There’s a point where it just gets ridiculous.”

The move comes as North Dakota officials step up their already vocal fight against the EPA.

U.S. Rep. Rick Berg, North Dakota’s only member in the House of Representatives, introduced legislation last week that would allow states to revoke federal visibility plans and come up with their own strategies to reduce haze-causing emissions.

Berg’s plan, the Regional Haze Federalism Act, would allow state plans to override federal plans provided they include a cost-benefit analysis of visibility improvements and the economic costs of implementation.

Berg said he is pushing the bill because the EPA is taking a “one size fits all” approach that will be a “drain on job creation.” Local officials, he said, are best suited to determine how to improve air quality.

“I’m trying to make sure the authority rests with the state as much as possible,” Berg said in an interview. “Let’s let the people closest to the problem figure out the solution.”

The EPA is collecting public comments on proposed haze-reduction rules in North Dakota through Nov. 21, and the rhetoric on both sides of the debate has intensified.

The Sierra Club and NPCA this week launched a new public ad campaign, “Health, Not Haze,” that includes a website and full-page newspaper ads supporting the EPA’s efforts. Opponents of the EPA’s plans have also mounted an aggressive campaign, but Kodish, the NPCA attorney, said the public is firmly in support of clean air.

“The question is whether the majority of the population is going to be heard or be drowned out by interests who have the ability to control more air time,” she said.

Drew Kerr is a Minneapolis-based freelance reporter who covers the Twin Cities and beyond. He can be reached at drewbkerr@gmail.com.

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